Sunday, February 28, 2010

I recently read an article by Lisa Delpit, published in the early 80s, about black educators arguing with white educators against whole language and workshop style because the black students needed to learn the language and conventions of those in power. (This was before Atwell published her book, but whole language had been around, and even some versions of workshop.) The presumption was that conventions aren't taught in whole language or workshop...which isn't true...or something like that. I remember other glimpses of this style war, when all-black charter schools sprang up -- strict, conservative, requiring uniforms, using Warriner's and teaching prescriptive grammar through drill-and-kill.

Those objections are what come to mind when I think about expressive (also known as creative) writing versus transactional (prompt-driven, for assessment) writing. I have learned that expressive writing can be writing to learn, can expand the world of ideas for the writer. It can and does contribute to the skill of the writer for transactional writing, the writing we do to demonstrate knowledge and skill. It generates new ideas, new solutions, that the writer may not have known that he/she had. This generative power is why I am writing several pages of quickly written prose every morning -- to work with the ideas I have, to generate new ones.

If students of color or of low socio-economic status are denied a chance to learn writing strategies having to do with invention and creation, that strikes me as oppressive. This is happening to students across our nation. Maybe their school got a bad report card, so the administrators have resorted to some conservative canned and scripted program that doesn't allow for teaching methods that might bring some chaos into the classroom in the name of writing to learn. Maybe the teachers at the school are ill-trained and don't know the generative power of expressive writing, even if they were allowed to control the content of their own lessons. Maybe parents conspire to require reactionary methods that they recognize from their own educational past.

At any rate, too many students are taught only formulaic approaches to writing for the purpose of raising test scores (which, unfortunately, will not happen unless students read so much that they reject formula writing as unrealistic when compared to the richness of text that avid readers are used to). A vicious cycle, wrong, unethical...Many of us know, can teach, and can show other teachers how to teach other more generative and less oppressive writing strategies.

Peter Elbow's concept of cooking, which occurs in the controlled chaos after quick drafting and during revision, is just such a generative concept associated with expressive writing and contributing to transactional excellence. He advises putting some ideas together, via metaphor, to let "chemical" reactions play out between the two ideas. By juxtaposing concepts not usually put together in the same sentence or paragraph, one concept can highlight, by contrast and opposition, aspects of another idea that the writer may not have seen before. Juxtiposing opposites sounds like logoi dissoi to me, brought to us by the sophists of ancient Greece. Poets do this in distilled fashion, and produce small gems of beauty. Elbow advises it, though, for the essay writer, the editorial writer, the memoirist, the lawyer. The writing doesn't have to be poetically metaphoric -- just by comparing, making strange bedfellows even in technical ways, to light up new ideas.

And so I compare this writing I am experimenting with (two pages every morning, first thing) to gentle but dense snowfall. The ideas pile up on page after page, just as the snow builds quietly deeper and deeper. Somewhere there will be substantial drifts with some consequence -- in front of the garage, for example. Likewise, as I turn the pages of my white lined pad, there are in those accumulated words, some drifts of gathering consequence, that will help me move my thinking forward, sometimes by sheer mass and occurrence, or perhaps because of the glimmer of some important concept, brilliant in the sunshine of a later reading.


redhead said...

Ms. Mikoda-

I thought your reflections on the ppiece you read are very interesting, and I struggle witth some of the same thoughts myself. I think, honestly, that one struggle I have in particular is what exactly to teach: it seems as though we read multiple theories about what is best, and it just adds up to too much sometimes-it gets overwhelming. I can't help but think that maybe this is why so many teachers rely on teaching conventions solely-they burn out just by thinking about all the possibilities and all the things they should be teaching. What are your thoughts on this?

starwatcher236 said...

That sense of being overwhelmed used to happen to me every August, when I tried to reinvent my system of units (much like Nancie Atwell described redoing her system of writing prompts). It helped when I had a vision of what I wanted students to gain from being in my class. I focused in on reading and writing habits of mind, and let the particular readers and writers I had each year guide my choice of topics to cover. One habit of mind that state assessments highlight is using productive reading strategies for non-fiction texts; that guided early lessons in the fall. In a broader sense, though, I had to have a vision to work toward; then I could choose or eliminate anything which did not support the vision. I held Time, Response, and Choice sacrosanct, and eliminated or limited lessons that interfered with those ideas. That's the best I can tell you just now.